Lisburn, County Antrim was originally called Lisnagarvy (from the Irish Lios na gCearrbhach, meaning Ringfort of the Gamesters) and until the early 17th century was under the control of the O’Neill family. However, the Ulster Plantations meant this part of the country, a territory called Killultagh, passed into the hands of an English adventurer, Sir Fulke Conway, younger son of Sir John Conway of Warwickshire. As early as 1611, Lord Carew who was then passing through the area could write, ‘In our travel from Dromore towards Knockfargus, we saw in Kellultagh upon Sir Fulke Conway’s lands a house of cagework in hand and almost finished, where he intends to erect a bawn of brick in a place called Lisnagarvagh. He has built a fair timber bridge over the river of Lagan near the house.’ Sir Fulke died childless in 1624 and left the lands he had acquired to his older brother, Sir Edward Conway, a soldier and politician who three years later was created Viscount Conway in the English peerage, and Viscount Killultagh in the Irish peerage; a member of the Privy Council and a Secretary of State, in the years prior to his death in 1631 he served as Lord President of the Council. His heir, also called Edward, the second viscount was also a soldier and politician but also an ardent bibliophile: his library in Ireland contained between 8,000 and 9,000 books. On his death in 1655, the estates and titles passed to the third Edward who in 1679 was created first Earl of Conway. He was also the last because, having no heir despite being married three times, on his death the titles became extinct. His property, on the other hand, passed to an eight-year old first-cousin once removed, with the stipulation that he take the surname of the deceased; accordingly, Lisburn and the surrounding lands were inherited by the wonderfully-named Popham Seymour-Conway. Alas, while not yet 25, he was mortally wounded in a drunken duel, and so once more the estates were passed on, this time to his younger brother, Francis Seymour-Conway, who in due course became Baron Conway of Ragley and Baron Conway of Killultagh in the respective national peerages. In turn, his son was created Marquess of Hertford, and when his descendant, the fourth marquess, died in 1870, he left the greater part of his estate (anything not entailed) to his secretary and illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace whose widow, in turn, bequeathed the family’s extraordinary art collection to the English nation, hence the Wallace Collection in London.
Meanwhile, back in the early 17th century, as has been noted, Sir Fulke Conway began to build a substantial house, known as Lisburn Castle, on his Irish lands. This was in Lisburn, on a site above the river Lagan beside which he laid out the town, arranging for the construction of a market house and square, as well as a new church and several residential streets: settlers from England and Wales were then encouraged to move there. Inevitably, in the early 1640s the town was attacked during the Confederate Wars but survived and continued to flourish; in the aftermath of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) large numbers of Huguenots moved here and helped to develop the linen trade, of which Lisburn became the most important centre in Ireland. A terrible fire ravaged the centre of the town in 1707 but it was soon rebuilt and returned to prosperity. The only building of importance not reconstructed in the aftermath of the conflagration was the Conway residence above the Lagan. By this time, the property had passed into the hands of the Seymour-Conways, who were absentee landlords and therefore there was no need for them to have a residence in Ireland.
Because it was destroyed by fire in 1707, the character and appearance of the Conway residence in Lisburn is unknown. However, what do survive are some of the outer walls of the site and a series of terraced gardens that led down to the banks of the Lagan. These gardens were laid out by Edward Conway, third viscount (and first earl) who appears to have been particularly interested in his Irish property. In 1656, a year after the death of his father, he brought over a Dutch gardener to create four terraces on the south-east facing slope that led from the building to the river. These terraces had retaining walls constructed of stone fronted with red brick, and the top of them would likely have been lined with pots containing colourful flowers: in 1667, Lord Conway imported twelve dozen such pots from Ostend. Each terrace was laid out with beds for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers, with a lower one planted as an orchard growing a variety of different apples. The terraces also held a broad gravel path, at the end of one of them being a ‘Dutch tent’, presumably some kind of summerhouse. Again in 1667, Conway ordered some 7,000 painted tiles from Holland for its interior, but only 3,000 of them survived the journey unbroken; his agent advised, ‘a very dear commodity they prove and in these scarce times I think your Lordship may better lay out or keep your money.’ The topmost terrace featured a double-flight stone perron beneath which was a grotto of some kind, with an arched entrance. In the aftermath of the 1707 fire and the failure to reconstruct Lisburn Castle – the site of which eventually became, and remains, a public park, with a late 19th century monument to Sir Richard Wallace at its centre – these terraced gardens were neglected and fell into dilapidation. However, in 2006-09, the area was excavated and restored, so that now it looks not unlike what Lord Conway intended when he undertook the work in the mid-17th century. Today, they provide a rare insight into horticultural design and practice in Stuart Ireland.